Saturday, January 17, 2009


I began listening to Wagner more as a matter of historical interest than musical curiosity. Although Romantic music was pleasant enough, I was more attuned to and moved by Baroque and Classical scores. What I knew of Wagner was limited to the usual audio-clips more often than not serving as background noise for some documentary.

I did note, however, that Wagner seemed to have a unique ability to enthrall or enrage that went beyond mere taste. Unlike, “I don’t care for Puccini all that much” or “Don Giovanni is wonderful,” people rolled their eyes heavenwards and said “Ah... Wagner! or scrinched their noses and snarled, “Ach, Wagner!!” with emphatic disgust. Nietzsche apparently did both and in some places they wouldn’t play Wagner at all. The most neutral thing said about him that I could find was Mark Twain’s bon mot, “I hear he’s better than he sounds.”

So I called up a friend of mine who was an audiophile and and an opera groupie and asked him what he thought would be a good piece to start with. “You don’t know Wagner at all?” Tim asked. “No, not really.” Tim inquired what kind of music I did like and then paused before replying, “Hmmmmm, well I’d start off with the more conventional Wagner.”

“The more conventional Wagner” .... Was this the “better than he sounds” or the “worse than he sounds” Wagner? I wondered.

“Well like what then?” Tim, who could be incredibly indecisive at times, hemmed and hawed before suggesting the Flying Dutchman... “or maybe...” “No, that’s fine.” “No...maybe Tannhauser would be better...” “Well which one?” “I suppose either would be alright.” Wagner was getting more foreboding by the second.

After thanking Tim for his help, I hung up the phone and decided to bite the bullet without further delay. Soon I was fingering through plastic CD cases in the Wagner section of the stacks. “Definitely not The Ring,” Tim had warned, although he added that I’d probably “be OK” with Rheingold.

The Ring Cycle! Several years before the San Francisco Opera had done “the full cycle”. People talked about the upcoming event with a kind of delighted dread. They were setting aside the time for.... And would probably be too wiped out to.... But it was a once in a lifetime.... I couldn’t decide who was more nuts, Wagnerians or devotées of Werner Erhart (who had also gesamtkunsted in the Opera House).

Well at any rate not the Ring. So I flipped through the stacks trying to decide which of the covers looked more inviting and in the end, reminding myself that it was just an historical investigation after all, pulled free of Tim’s enthrallment, and opted for the cheapest -- a Bayreuth performance of Tannhauser.


It was a sun-bright, faint-breeze San Diego afternoon by the time I returned home. It was warm inside and Hobbes, the cat, was draped over a chair in feline languor. Leaving the front door open, I turned the stereo up to “opera” level and sat down. Hobbes remained languid as the soft and somber refrains wafted through the air.

At a remove of many years it is hard to recapture how I heard Wagner during those first listenings. His seamless melody which now seems structured and clear then seemed like so much tonal ambling. Tannhauser began melodiously enough but these melancholy bars suddenly turned something that sounded like a jingling gallop at the races

Hobbes looked up annoyed

which abruptly crashed into an ear-splitting, plate smashing, shrieking marital squabble

Hobbes let out a pained mee-OW and ran out the door

before resolving once again into some sort of stately pageant. For sure, overtures tend to be a tonal stew of courses to come, but the problem was that the whole opera was like the overture. When it was all over, I was decidedly unimpressed.

Hobbes struggles with laut Motifs

In fact, I must have been fairly disappointed because, after a break, I decided to sit down and listen to it again, libretto in hand. This time around the seamless jolts were a little less jarring and I got a better sense of the why’s and whereto's. But at the end of the day, Wagner placed in a tie with Schubert.

It certainly did not provide any historical insight.

It was several days, maybe a week, later that I decided to listen to Tannhuaser again. I don’t think I was still making an effort to “understand” the music. It was rather that the sing-song of the Pilgrim’s Chorus, kept traversing my mind and I wanted to listen to it again in vivo. So, I lay back on the sofa with my feet up and listened again. Perhaps simply because I had heard it twice, the parts seemed more connected, the shouting less ear-splitting, the marches and choruses as full and melodious as before. And then it happened.

Wolfram had ended his evensong lullaby, as the dark and devastated spectre of Tannhauser came dragging back into “musical view,” heavy laden past endurance and mad with grief. I sat up. What I had anticipated as more “talking” before a sonorous choral finale, now nailed my attention. If this wasn’t the very sound of world-weariness nothing was. With a sort of suspended inner quiet, I followed the narrative of Tannhauser’s Passion; and then, at a certain moment broke into uncontrollable sobbing. Some kind of internal structure just collapsed leaving me to mutter unintelligible things between sobs. Many times Bach had stilled my soul the way no other music ever could; but no other music had ever provoked my soul as this.

When it was all over, I lay on the couch feeling the physical sensitvity of an emotional wound Wagner had pierced ... or... was it, lanced? After a while, I got up and went for a walk in the park.

Und dann ich bekamm ein Wagnerianer.

Now, forgetting history, I wanted nothing but to listen to all of Wagner at once. I gave up practicing Invention 14 and begged my organ teacher, Jim Statz, to teach me to play the Pilgrim’s Chorus. Of course, I could only manage the Idiot Version in G (Reader, Hold your peace!) knowing that I could never attain the four hand-flying pedal version that Jim let loose on the pipes.

It perhaps goes without saying that not all of Wagner strikes me as deeply, and sometimes it doesn’t strike me at all. But the thing I have noticed, is that I never know when he is going to strike me in just that vulnerable way.

It was therefore with some reluctance that I sent away for a remastered DVD of a 1982 performance of Tannhauser at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine and staring Richard Casilly, Tatiana Troyanos and Eva Marton. I told myself that I would not have to listen to it during the Christmas Season; I knew that once it arrived, I would.

Traditionalists interpret Tannhauser as a morality play about the choice between lower, erotic lust (represented by Venus) and higher, chaste love (represented by the virginal Elizabeth). In the dramatic finale, teetering on the choice between Heaven and Hell, Tannhauser makes the right choice and is saved.

I have always resisted this interpretation. Not only is it morally trite, such a commonplace catechism seems unworthy of Wagner. And yet, not only did he compose it, it is unmistakably clear, at the end, that Tannhauser’s last cri de coeur is “Elizaberth!” after which the chorus applauds the choice and sings of the eternal bliss awaiting those who chose love over lust.

But while that was true, it was equally the case that much of the musical score is “sympathetic” to eros and Venus is more human and caring than a mere Circe. In addition, the dramatic action in the opera unmistakably entails an indictment against conventionality and formulaic morality, which Elizabeth herself protests against. So while the text of the finale was fairly explicit, I felt the music and drama as a whole were “ambiguous.” However, “vague and ambiguous” is not much of an interpretation of anything. One might as well simply say, Wagner was sloppy and confused. none of which makes for great art.

A number of years later, (after a couple of attempts to explain the “ambiguity” in my favor) it occurred to me that Tannhuaser’s “choice” was not between two external love-objects but rather between two internal love impulses. Internalizing the choice shifts the issue from “what do I want to have” to “how do I wish to be” -- and I think that interpretation is, if not essentially correct, closer to the truth of what Tannhauser is about.

Still, it wasn’t all coming together and I think the reason for this was that I was just listening to the music and the lyrics. If Wagner had just wanted to write music, he would have done so; but he was very clear in his insistence on gesamtkunst -- an “altogether-art” that blended in words, music, gesture, setting, in equally essential parts.

The difficulty here was that virtually all current performances eschew Wagner’s deciddly 19th century stage directions and opt for some innovative, provocative, trendy, far-out, reinterpretation. I suppose this is as fine as it goes, but it only gets one to an opinion which, in Tannhauser’s case, usually gets back to the moral cliché I ran away from in the first place. Then, just before the holidays, I chanced onto a Youtube clip of the Guest Entry from the Met’s production which had evidently gone back and given full play to Wagner’s instructions. I was intrigued beyond resisting.

Once I saw it all-together, Tannhauser’s riddle became clear: it was not about a dialetical choice of eros versus agape, but rather the story of the ascent from eros to agape. Far from “blowing the whistle” on eros (as Benedict XVI has put it), Wagner was exploring the convergence of the two forms of love. What is implied at the end, is not so much a rejection as a maturation.

The ascent motif (ahem), is indicated by the fact that Venusberg is located in the Earth’s interior whereas Wartburg Castle is on a hill, in the Earth’s exterior nearing the sky. Tannhauser’s pilgrimage to Rome, is a digression which takes place within the larger pilgrimage from grotto to castle. The pilgrimage to Rome begins with his ejection from Wartburg but the larger pilgrimage began with his rejection of Venus -- a rejection not born of disparagement but of a desire to breathe a human life.

Tannhauser’s is not the only pilgrimage. It is an “external” pilgrimage that has its correlative in Elizabeth’s “interior” pilgrimage which is just as dynamic even if she never moves from Wartburg. Although Elizabeth is presented as “virginal” she indisputably has sensual feelings, just as Venus has compassionate ones. To think of Elizabeth as some sort of asexual monster runs contrary to the text. Elizabeth’s prayer to the Virgin in the final act (III) which indisputably acknowledges “erotic” desires on her own part -- desires which may not have been fully understood in Act II (“emotions n’er experienced; longings never known”).

More important than questions of purity, Elizabeth’s progression is from needing to giving. When first seen, Elizabeth is much like a girl, dreaming and waiting for a not fully understood enfatuation. As Tannhauser had begun in Act I freeing himself from, Elizabeth begins in Act II the process of giving herself to, and in the end, prays for death in order to intercede for Tannhauser.

This vertical and feminine (sic) axis is characterized in large measure by a theme of acceptance. The juxtaposition of Venus and Elizabeth is not as complete as moralists might want. Venus is not simply an unconscious erotic force. She is a goddess but one who needs Tannhauser and feels the hurt of his rejection born of human necessity. Somewhat conversely, Elizabeth begins as a not fully human child, and moves just as necessarily from longing to a transcending selflessness. Each both give and accept.. If Elizabeth sacrifices herself for Tannhauser in the end it is equally true that Venus forgives his betrayal and welcomes him back.

The vertical Venus - Elizabeth dynamic is not the only axis in the drama. Tannhauser has his male counterpart in Wolfram. For the most part, they meet at the center space between Venusberg and Wartburg, as pilgrims enter and exit, left to right, going to and coming from Rome. It this horizontal action that serves to inversely define Tannhauser.

Wolfram is a well meaning, utterly conventional blockhead -- accepting surface truths and incapable of profundity. His song at the music contest is a monument to kitsch (“heroes like fresh oaks, proud and green...”) and his harp plucking assertions about love (“see how I apprehend love’s purest essence”) is what ends up provoking Tannhauser’s, erotically proud disdain. To know who Wolfram is is to know what Tannhauser is not -- which conforms to Wagner’s statement that Tannhuaser is a person who feels all emotion deeply. Wolfram is not a bad man. He is in fact well meaning. He is Tannhauser’s competitor in song contests but he is not his enemy. He is the conventionality and complacency Tannhauser has to move away from, if he is to realize his quest for a humanity that requires freedom and ends in death.

Up to a point Wolfram serves as a foil for comic relief. In context, his lyrical ode to the Evening Star (“Oh loveliest of stars... Thy sweet light that points the way....”) is an absurdity almost beyond belief, except for the fact that Wolfram is obviously clueless. In almost the same breath, after singing a paean to Venus, Wolfram horrorificly warns Tannhauser of his imminent damnation to hell. All this comic nonsense as a prelude to the wrenching tragic finale!

The horizontal axis between Wolfram and Tannhauser, representing the dynamic between complacent conventionality and struggling freedom, is characterized principally by a theme of rejection, most pathetically Tannhauser’s excommunication from Wartburg and, most devastating, his damnation at Rome. To this extent the drama lays a hard indictment of the superficially good, the untested, the uncompassionate.

What occurs at the end (at least in the Met production) is not a choice but a convergence. Most tellingly, Venus was not rejected, but simply fades away as Tannhauser is transformed and dies.


There is always, it seems to me, the pitfall of beating a play or a painting to death. Analyses that go on too long become tiresome, and the “intuitive” understanding born of sensing the logic of the whole, degenerates into a heap of citations and counter-points. In Wagner’s case, the process also invariably degenerates into a fetishistic pursuit of Wagneriana, quoting letters to Cosima and whatnot. I have avoided the second and hope I have steered clear enough from the first, intending no more than to sketch the outlines of a dramatic geography.

Other reviewers have said that the Met performance, while it executed Wagners’s intention and directions, was open enough to leave room for individual interpretation. That is certainly correct, and I think that was Wagner’s goal. There is in the end a difference between drama and doctrine.

There is also a difference between enjoyment and hobbyhorsing. I am not an opera “buff” and can hardly argue the arcana of different performances. Of the three performances of Tannhauser that I now have Wieland’s is the least inspired. For my tastes, nothing can rival Solti’s Vienna Philarmonic/Boys Choir performance with René Kollo (Tannhauser), Victor Braun (Wolfram) and Christa Ludwig (Venus), for richness of color and articulation. But the Solti performance, as we have it, is a halbkunst. If Kollo’s singing edges out ahead, Casilly's sung-acting is overwhelming. Perhaps because he is too big to be lustfully lythe, Casillay is a little stiff in Venusberg, but his in your face haughtiness at the singing contest wonderfully brings you to the edge of the dramatic precipice. His return from Rome is beyond description.

I am a poorly versed musician, but Levine’s performance strikes me every bit as worthy as Solti’s perhaps brighter, and a tad more dramatically tense. If I had to distill the differences between the two, I’d say that Solti’s Tannhauser is European and sophisticated, whereas Levine’s is American and earnest.

Levine has an unfortunate appearance more suited for buffoonery than tragic opera but his own performance as conductor (during the overture) got it right, at least, he gesticulated what the music feels like to me. I particularly liked the way his tremmolo hand pointed up the connection between eros and heroism. This is odd, because although Tannhauser is a Christian morality play, these passages from the overture are (to my ear) unmistakably Promethean.

Lastly, one criticism The Virgin Mary niche. I can understand how leaving for openness would require not having a prominent statute to the Virgen De Guadalupe center stage left. But what they have, looks like a fire alarm box. There were more felicitous alternatives that would have worked just as well.

Twenty years after the fact, I would certainly recommend this performance. More generally, I am convinced now that the only way to experience Wagner is the way he intended and directed. No more Tannhausers in turtlenecks!!!

©WCG, 2009


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